After Exploring the Ocean With ‘Bathymetry,’ Matt McBane Returns With the Terrestrial Companion ‘Topography’
By Vanessa Ague
Monday, November 27, 2023
During “Chorale,” a movement of Matt McBane’s Topography, cello, percussion, synthesizer, and piano tones float with ease, patiently blossoming as they repeat. It’s like walking up a mountain: At first, you’re surrounded by trees on a thin path, scampering up rocks and through crunchy fallen leaves. Gradually, the path widens to a vista, and you stare out at the stretch of land that seems to never end.
Topography, a six-movement odyssey that takes inspiration in those wide-open natural expanses, receives its full world premiere at National Sawdust on December 6, performed by Mantra Percussion and cellist Ashley Bathgate. It’s a return to National Sawdust for McBane, who presented an album release show of Bathymetry, named for the science of measuring the depth of water in the ocean, at the venue last December. For that performance, he plunged the audience and performers underwater, creating a moody atmosphere with cerulean, immersive lights that complemented the gurgling music. Topography, Bathymetry’s natural companion, draws from McBane’s childhood growing up in Southern California, hiking and exploring the varied ecosystems and terrains. “There’s a yin and yang kind of thing with [Bathymetry and Topography]—beneath and above, or the open space of land and dark, mysterious underwater,” McBane says.
McBane’s compositional practice lends itself to evocative imagery and sprawling atmospheres. He has long played violin and composed for the band Build, a chamber quintet that combined the tenets of jazz, minimalism, and fiddling into winding packages. With this ensemble, McBane developed his compositional voice, carving a niche in his post-rock-meets-Steve Reich style. Topography draws on this music, building sweeping atmospheres from intricate, repeating patterns that slightly change with each reiteration. When McBane started composing the work, he was interested in crafting music that stretched out, imagining dusty desert roads and crispy flora that sprawled for miles and family hikes up and down the rocky California terrain. While Topography’s concept is broad, McBane weaves images of Earth into the fabric of the piece. He uses terra cotta flower pots, for example, which make a bell-like ringing sound that feels “earthy and mellow,” he says. He also asks the performers to strike and scrape their instruments, creating sounds that feel like the ground as it crunches under a foot on a long walk.
“McBane’s compositional practice lends itself to evocative imagery and sprawling atmospheres...Topography draws on this music, building sweeping atmospheres from intricate, repeating patterns that slightly change with each reiteration. When McBane started composing the work, he was interested in crafting music that stretched out, imagining dusty desert roads and crispy flora that sprawled for miles and family hikes up and down the rocky California terrain.”
For Mika Godbole, a member of Mantra Percussion, the draw of McBane’s music is how its physicality and emotions become indelible in the mind. She and McBane have a long history together—they first met through their concentric music circles, and Godbole has played parts of Bathymetry before as well as workshopping Topography with him over the past couple of years. As a performer, she notices that all of his pieces are memorable, sucking her into every note as she plays. “Usually after a piece is done, you're like, ‘I don't know what happened on that stage. I have no idea. I hope it came across well,’” Godbole says. “With Matt’s music, I really remember what it felt like in my gut.”
While the piece often feels like a lengthy drone, it is made of tiny building blocks that snap together like legos. The movement “Scales,” for example, foregrounds a series of ascending runs that slide up a scale, changing the rhythms ever-so-slightly with each repetition. Here, the music feels like it’s running a marathon, bouncing from one mile to the next. Listening feels like entering a flow state, but look closely and you can hear all the little parts chugging along. As a performer, you enter that rhythmic state, too. “You just have to ride the wave and not overthink it too much,” Godbole says. “The challenge is to practice enough so that you can think about it less and just let go.”
Audiences will get to experience the feeling of release as they listen. McBane hopes that the spiritual expanse of the music can wash over them, as if we’re all on a hike to a scenic view together. “The audience gets to come on a journey,” McBane says. “It’s a whole long piece where the different movements can exist, and maybe they require some patience, but as you enter the piece you slow down and just exist in it.”
About Vanessa Ague
Vanessa Ague is a violinist and critic who writes for publications including the Wire, Pitchfork, and Bandcamp Daily. She is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.